Interview with Ann Dingli about the curation for Meta-Landscapes: Representations and Perceptions, a group show opening at Valletta Contemporary (VC) in spring 2022.
Ann Dingli (AD): In a video interview from 2011, where you join fellow video artist Robert Cahen in conversation, you describe your changing relationship or allegiance to video as the medium shifted away from its tactile, or haptic, electronic mechanics. The ‘Meta-Landscapes’ exhibition is positioned as a collection of works by artists who “pioneered the electronic moving image as an art form”. Does the focus on electronic versus digital here have bearing on the wider theme of representation of landscape? Does the idea of texture become relevant to the efficacy or fluency of electronic moving image in translating spatial experiences?
Chris Meigh-Andrews (CMA): Yes, I think there are a number of significant ways in which the transition from the electronic to the digital is relevant with respect to the representation of landscape, especially in terms of the moving image. There are of course technical aspects, for example, the resolution of the image which has had an impact on scale – early video was much less effective as a way of representing vistas and so of providing a sense of space and distance. Analogue video was much more suited to the close-up, to providing an intimate and personal perspective. Digital video is much more “cinematic”, both in terms of the scale and proportion of the image, and in terms of its image quality, and this has changed the way in which artists can present and represent an experience of landscape.
There is also the fact that digital technology has provided artists with much more portable and reliable equipment. Camera/recorders are more rugged, lightweight, and often waterproof too. This has in turn has made it much easier for artists to engage directly with their environment and surroundings; there is a kind of freedom of movement and accessibility undreamed of in the early days of video.
You mention image texture in your question too, which is partly connected to the resolution of the video image that I referred to in the first part of my response, but it is also related to the way in which the camera and lens represents and renders objects and spaces. Artists have always been interested in the relationship between “vison” – the act of seeing and its relationship to external reality – what we see and how we are perceiving it. This is a central theme in the genre of landscape art. The camera (and all the related constituent parts of the imaging system – lens, recording device, display, etc.) is a tool which can enable us to engage and reflect on what it means to look out at our surrounding environment and to interrogate and try to make sense of our relationship to it.
Another significant element to touch on when we talk about video art is its relationship to the concepts and experiences of physical and psychological space. To my way of thinking, the television screen provided an early manifestation of what has come to be known as “virtual space.” When I first saw peter campus’ 1973 video Three Transitions, in which the artist disappears through a seamless paper backdrop whilst simultaneously emerging to face the camera, it dawned on me that I had been confronted with the experience of an electronic space unique to video. The progression from analogue to digital has further enhanced the possibilities and potential of virtual space.
The exhibition presents works that are about spatial experiences and perceptions. Each work creates complex relationships to multiple spaces – the space(s) represented on the screen, the emotional/psychological spaces of the artist and the viewer, and the also the work’s physical relationship to the gallery space.
AD: You have built a wide conversational canon with contemporary video artists, some of whom feature in this exhibition. Can you talk about your curation framework for the show, and what conversations may have influenced the selection of works chosen to represent its central theme?
CMA: Well, first and foremost, the artists in this exhibition are all people whose work I admire! Many of them are pioneers who have worked with the medium for decades, exploring and developing the artform and opening it up for others to follow. This exhibition is a tribute to the artists who have inspired and challenged me (both as a viewer and as an artist), and to the genre, which is central to my own creative aspirations. In my selection I wanted to try to represent a range of attitudes and approaches to the medium and to the subject matter and themes.
My own work has most often been related to the landscape in one way or another – pointing my camera at it, taking the camera into it, or referencing the experience of trying to make sense of my relationship to it, so the theme is personally close to my heart.
Because of my role as an historian, I am lucky to have been able to engage many of the artists in this exhibition in a dialogue about their work and approach to the video medium, both in terms of its history and its development as one of the most important contemporary media – if not the most important.
AD: The exhibition focuses on the representation of landscape through moving image. I’m interested in unpacking the title of the show – ‘Meta-Landscapes: Representations and Perceptions’ – specifically in the word ‘meta’. Today, this word has been co-opted or usurped by conversations around the ‘metaverse’, referring to the network of three-dimensional virtual worlds focused on social connection. Does this exhibition ask viewers to de-shackle themselves from this contemporary association or definition? Does the show itself address it in any way?
CMA: As I understand it the word ‘Meta’ is from the Greek for ‘beyond’. My intention with the title of the exhibition was to suggest that the real subject of the exhibition is not related the depiction or reproduction of any particular landscape, but instead to be about the question of what an experience of landscape might suggest or reveal to anyone who reflected on it. After all, I would suggest that the purpose of art is not to simply represent or reproduce something, but in some way to engage with the human experience of being in the world.
This theme is connected to my interest in the concept of nature and its relationship to thought, which comes from my readings of Gregory Bateson, who sought to articulate and argue for an understanding of the inextricable bond between living beings and their environment and David Bohm who speculated about the crucial relationship between the processes of thought and the stuff of matter.
AD: It is impossible to approach any theme relating to landscape without a discussion on climate and ecological crises. One of the exhibition’s sub-focuses is the depiction of the natural world as it juxtaposes with man-made artefacts or situations. In this vein, is there a comment being made within the show on the impact that that relationship – nature and man – has had on the planet’s environmental health?
CMA: Yes, certainly. This refers back to Bateson’s ideas about the disastrous path human beings have taken in the increasing disconnect between ourselves and the natural environment. If I can perhaps refer to my own work in the exhibition as an example. The title Nothing Beside Remains is of course a reference to Shelley’s famous sonnet Ozymandias. Even though I work with a time-based medium, I have attempted to make a work that is in some way timeless, to invoke a time or a place from which we are absent, gone and are no more. The video presents images of a landscape without any human presence; the sea, the sun, the sky, the clouds, and those huge worn limestone formations that are the central image of the work. To me they suggested the remains of some ancient sculpture – remnants of a forgotten human civilisation. A direct connection to the last lines of Shelley’s poem:
Nothing beside remains. Round
Of that colossal wreck,
boundless and bare
the lone and level sands stretch
The soundtrack music is Arvo Pärt’s magisterial Spiegel im Spiegel, (Mirror in the Mirror), an evocative image of infinity, in this recording elegantly performed by Leonard Roczek and Herbert Schuch.